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A Senate committee voted unanimously Thursday to effectively kill a bill that would have repealed Utah's guest-worker immigration law passed last session, the first such attempt at rolling back the controversial measure.
Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, proposed SB157 with support from activists who have spent a year fighting the law, calling it unconstitutional and voicing fears it will turn Utah into a magnet for undocumented immigrants.
Urquhart said he was simply trying to "unring the bell" by repealing HB116.
"Last session we made a mistake when we passed HB116," he said. "This is an effort to remedy that effort made by this body."
But the committee wasn't friendly to the proposal. The chairman of the Senate Workforce Services and Community and Economic Development Committee is Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, the sponsor of HB116. Also on the committee is Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who championed the measure last session.
Of the remaining committee members, not one voted against HB116 last session.
"I told me wife, 'I've got to go to the wood chipper,' " Urquhart said after the 90-minute hearing.
Waddoups made the motion to table SB157. To resurrect the bill, Urquhart would need to persuade two-thirds of the committee, a prospect the Republican likened to "turning water into wine."
The call to repeal or replace HB116 began not long before it cleared the Legislature near the end of the 2011 session. It was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 15 along with an enforcement-only measure carried by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.
Utah's guest-worker law isn't scheduled to take effect until July 1, 2013. When it does, it will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a state-based guest-worker visa after paying fines as high as $2,500 and clearing background checks. They then could be hired and work in Utah while they would be taxed at the federal rate. But since they wouldn't be legal workers in the eyes of the federal government, those payroll deductions would flow into a state-run account until Washington established a mechanism for them to collect the taxes.
But attorney Mark Alvarez said the setup was "a fantasy" and that the federal government could not approve a program that would subvert its constitutional authority on immigration. He said the state instead should pressure Utah's congressional delegation to push for comprehensive immigration reform.
Waddoups was incredulous. "We tried that," he said. "Any other ideas?"
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has been in negotiations with federal officials including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder said the so-called "waiver" that would allow HB116 to operate is similar to the recent memo from the Obama administration that pushed prosecutorial discretion.
That policy essentially allowed undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for more than five years, are working or attending school and who haven't been convicted of a crime to be shoved to the bottom of the priority list for deportation.
Shurtleff said he essentially is asking the federal government to allow Utah to do the same.
"The purpose of this bill is to deal with a very real problem," Shurtleff said. "The people here are working, performing very important jobs."
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Utah has an estimated 110,000 undocumented immigrants.
Urquhart said his constituents in St. George have pushed for an enforcement-only approach to immigration and the repeal of HB116.
However, Reid said he was growing weary of people calling out the patriotism of those who carried or supported HB116. He said he has taken an oath nine times to defend the Constitution, including the first time as a member of the military, and said those calls are "irritating."
Keri Witte who drafted and got several resolutions passed, including one at the Utah Republican Convention, that sought to repeal HB116 said she would have liked to see the committee take action on Urquhart's bill instead of tabling it.
But she said her allies will keep fighting and put their weight behind Rep. Chris Herrod's guest-worker replacement bill, HB300, which is awaiting a committee hearing.